Women’s Masters AFL: The Long Shot

The daughter of academically oriented migrant parents, Anita O’Shea faced long odds in pursuing her passion to play Australian Rules football. But sometimes persistence plus enthusiasm coalesces into good fortune.

 With her Fijian parents acutely aware of the importance of education, Australian-born Anita O’Shea faced a real challenge in explaining to them her passion for sport, in particular the confounding game of Australian Rules football. Her mother and father had moved to Australia, like many migrants, with ambitions to create a better life for themselves and their children. They prioritized a thorough education, and in Anita’s case a career in the medical profession just like her dad. However, not only did she steer clear of medicine, she inexplicably embraced the Melbourne sporting culture of Australian Rules football. It was something she could never explain to – or even discuss with – her parents, and that communication gap remains even now when she is finally pursuing her passion by playing in the AFL women’s masters competition. They simply don’t understand. 

At 48 years of age Anita loves the game. It’s just been a whole lot harder for her to play it than for many others. Now a regular in her second season with the Waverley Warriors Masters team, she’s living a lifelong dream and enjoying every minute of it. 

Anita O’Shea has engaged a new group of friends in pursuing a common sporting goal courtesy of the fledgling AFL Women’s Masters football competition.

Anita O’Shea has engaged a new group of friends in pursuing a common sporting goal courtesy of the fledgling AFL Women’s Masters football competition.

Her journey started in Queensland, the state her parents moved to from Fiji. Her father was a poor but bright student who had been sponsored to study medicine at University of Queensland. He won a scholarship and moved from Suva to undertake his studies. Anita’s mother was a nurse who waited two years before she could come to Australia. Anita was born in Queensland in 1970. Her father had a hard time getting a job, which O’Shea attributes to final dredged tailings of the White Australia policy before that dark hole was totally mined out.

He decided to move to Melbourne, but work in his new home town still proved elusive. Finally he opened his own doctor’s surgery in Brunswick, and with the help of Anita’s mother they treated patients amongst the Greek and Italian community around Melbourne’s inner city suburb of Carlton. It was hard work getting established, with little time left for anything else. There were no other family members to fall back on, so they came to rely upon their neighbours for help. One was a VFL footballer named Barry Padley who played for Fitzroy over a 10-year period from 1968 to 1978. That detail didn’t register with Anita’s family, but his help with the youngster and her brother and sister was greatly appreciated.

The level of skills displayed in this new competition has been steadily improving, but for a cohort of women who have grabbed a chance to compete in Australian Rules football after most thought that chance might be gone, there has never been any query about their levels of enthusiasm and intensity.

The level of skills displayed in this new competition has been steadily improving, but for a cohort of women who have grabbed a chance to compete in Australian Rules football after most thought that chance might be gone, there has never been any query about their levels of enthusiasm and intensity.

Padley took to heading off to training with young Anita in tow. Says O’Shea, “I was interested in sports like cricket and rugby, but I found I really liked Australian Rules football. Barry became a bit of a father figure. But nobody cared about AFL football in my family.”

She didn’t have a football at home, but she loved getting involved and talking about it at school. Through her school years boyfriends and girlfriends were all involved in football to varying degrees, and they reinforced her passion. But she says her pursuit of football was “kind of restricted”. “As long as my studies were fine, then I could go to the football. I was good at sports, but my parents didn’t engage. They were academic. There were no ‘after school’ activities for me. I was a good child, but scared of branching out.”

For some time O’Shea carried self-doubt into her footballing contests, but coach Peter ‘Pants’ Nash was able to talk her through her persistent background concerns to allow her to chase her on-field ambition with a freer, more positive mind-set.

For some time O’Shea carried self-doubt into her footballing contests, but coach Peter ‘Pants’ Nash was able to talk her through her persistent background concerns to allow her to chase her on-field ambition with a freer, more positive mind-set.

When school finished she went on to Melbourne University to study teaching. But that caused ructions within the family because O’Shea had decided she would not become a doctor. She wanted to pursue another path. She moved out of home and had to support herself. “My father didn’t speak to me for a year,” she says. She got a job in a nursing home whilst she studied and that decision had a profound effect on her life.

“I followed whatever teams various boyfriends followed – Carlton, Essendon, Geelong,” says O’Shea. She was still a Geelong supporter, working in that nursing home, when she met the man who would convert her to the Richmond cause – her future husband Justin. Studying engineering, he was also working at the nursing home to get some cash together. They both had separate partners, but that soon changed. O’Shea says a pivotal moment in their relationship came when they were on a car trip and Justin noticed she carried a Geelong keyring. “He chucked it out the window!” she says. He offered her his considered opinion that Geelong was inadequate and Richmond was superior. “That’s when I changed!” she says. “Our passion for football is crazy and we could share that.” It mattered little that Richmond was travelling poorly back then and Geelong far better. They now have three kids (they got them Richmond memberships before they were born) and they all regularly attend Richmond games. Her husband also coaches Auskick. 

Summer training for season two. O’Shea worked hard during the off-season on every aspect of her game, from marking to kicking and handballing.

Summer training for season two. O’Shea worked hard during the off-season on every aspect of her game, from marking to kicking and handballing.

But there was still a hole when it came to participating fully in football. O’Shea says she would often find at social events that she’d be treated “as a girl who didn’t know about football.” When they were invited to grand final barbeques the boys would kick the footy around at half time, but she couldn’t get involved. “They wouldn’t kick it to me!” she notes with indignation. She says that element of continual exclusion made her “really angry”. 

But at that time there was no way she could play the game. She didn’t know any women who did. Even her father-in-law told her “women aren’t built to play the game”. “But that just didn’t sound right,” she says. “It bothered me.”

So she restricted her enthusiasm to supporting the Tigers and backing her children (two girls and a boy) when they participated. Then one day a couple of seasons ago, a contact at her kid’s school told her about a ‘come and try’ day for older women players and asked if she wanted to give it a go. “I was coming in cold to try footy. I hadn’t kicked a ball around or played as a kid. But I really wanted to try it. I could run and I was fit. I wanted to be a part of a team.” 

She recalls turning up on a cold and sunny day. But even on the way there she was telling herself “I’m not going to do this. This is ridiculous.” Then she arrived and joined in with a collection of women, mostly with similar skills but the same high levels of enthusiasm. “I ended up really enjoying it!” she says. “I felt OK at the end. I was sucked in and I wanted everything.”

Pre-game warm-up for the first game of the 2019 season. Players who took part in the inaugural AFL Women’s Masters season displayed more confidence and better skills in season two. But mostly their closer relationships has been what they’ve come to value most.

Pre-game warm-up for the first game of the 2019 season. Players who took part in the inaugural AFL Women’s Masters season displayed more confidence and better skills in season two. But mostly their closer relationships has been what they’ve come to value most.

Over the first two seasons (so far) she has only missed a couple of matches. But still the progression has been challenging. “I’d go to training, but I always felt I didn’t get it. I had terrible negatives in my self-talk.” She says Warriors coach Peter “Pants” Nash helped get her out of that mindset. At the time of writing the Warriors had played four games this season and O’Shea had also joined in for a Vic Metro versus Vic Country game at Marvel Stadium. How did she feel about playing on the big stage? She says she was so happy she cried. “I was such a beginner, but everyone has been supportive.” Friends have turned up to her games and she has the full backing of her husband and kids. There’s a national masters carnival scheduled for Townsville later in the year and she’s making it a personal goal to turn up there. “My daughters want me to go,” she says.

O’Shea says the game has imparted some great lessons. “The number one thing is that I feel like I belong. There’s a team spirit and you’re part of a family. I also love the common passion for it. I can talk footy and be acknowledged without having to hold back.” 

In season two more teams and players with better skills have lifted the standard of the competition. But new participants have also been welcomed in line with the league’s aim to grow the sport.

In season two more teams and players with better skills have lifted the standard of the competition. But new participants have also been welcomed in line with the league’s aim to grow the sport.

“There’s so much skill required of you in the team. It’s our game and I’m proud of our team. They’re a great bunch.” After so many years on the sidelines, O’Shea is now on the field, learning the skills and responsibilities involved in working towards a common sporting goal. She’s becoming a footballer. One day, with an ounce of luck, her parents might see there’s more ways to succeed than through academia alone. Regardless, her decision to take on this new challenge has already brought her great rewards and led to an even deeper appreciation of her true sporting passion. After a shaky start, it’s been a win all round.

In the Master’s Womens competition team-building and the making of new friendships has been as important as playing the game and winning. Players from all backgrounds and ages (beyond the minimum playing age!) have been encouraged to take part.

In the Master’s Womens competition team-building and the making of new friendships has been as important as playing the game and winning. Players from all backgrounds and ages (beyond the minimum playing age!) have been encouraged to take part.

From the earliest (coldest!) training nights coach Peter Nash encouraged a strong team ethos and aimed to build mutual respect amongst the players and for the foundations of the game they were participating in…

From the earliest (coldest!) training nights coach Peter Nash encouraged a strong team ethos and aimed to build mutual respect amongst the players and for the foundations of the game they were participating in…

…and so far it’s worked! One for all and all for one!

…and so far it’s worked! One for all and all for one!